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Parent aide program is a beacon of light for families


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000

Darlene Thompson felt all alone after she broke all ties with an abusive husband and mother and moved into her own apartment with her 12-year-old son. Then she met Pat Irwin.

"It was scary being out there on my own. But at least I knew I always had Pat. I could call her at work. I have her cell phone number. We e-mail," said the 34-year-old mother. "I don't know what I would have done without her. It was so hard not to have family or anyone you can talk to."

Irwin is part of a program that matches volunteers with families that need someone to lean on a little. She stared out as a volunteer parent aide for Thompson but now calls the single mother her adopted daughter.

The 53-year-old secretary at St. Petersburg's main Post Office heard about the parent aide program through her contributions to United Way. With her children grown and out of the house, she thought it was a good time to try to help another parent.

"I went through the training classes and realized my background in having and raising two children and adopting a third suited me well for this. I'm a child-oriented person," Irwin told me. "You just become a friend to them. You are not a judgmental person. You're not a doctor, officer, social worker, the court -- just a friend to help hem."

The parent aide and the parent or parents meet weekly to talk about needs, goals, parenting and anything else that comes up.

"A lot of times people move here and left their family, or they don't have an aunt down the street to call on if they have a question," said Kris Brink, one of two social workers at the Exchange Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse, which manages the program. Parent aides help families establish and reach their goals.

"It may be they want to learn more about child development, or parenting skills, resources in the community of how to go back to school," Brink said. "The most common goal would be to have a friend to call on."

Though the program is run by the Exchange Center for Prevention of Child Abuse, few of the parents in the program are abuse victims. Many are referred by other social agencies and organizations.

Thompson heard about the program from CASA, where she lived until she moved out on her own. Irwin gave her and her son two main things: love and information.

"She would tell me I was doing a great job when I needed to hear it the most," she said. "She looked up a lot of stuff for me on the Internet. When I was worried about summer camp for my son she came over with a whole portfolio of camps I could apply for."

When her son was placed on a long waiting list for a big brother, Irwin's husband took him to ball games and tried to offer a positive male influence. When Thompson broke her knee on the job, Irwin helped lead her through the complicated maze of worker's compensation. It was Irwin who figured out that the Healthy Kids insurance program could cover Thompson's son for $15 a month. Thompson even bought Irwin's used car and didn't have to pay until her tax refund came in.

Though Irwin is now working with another parent because Thompson has progressed well on her own, the two women still see each other regularly.

"We do lunch, and she likes to check up on my son. She had the Post Office adopt him for Christmas. He wrote down a list and he got everything he asked for.

"Pat gave the right kind of help," Thompson told me. "She didn't tell me what to do. She just came with a lot of different doors for me to open."

Listening is a key part of the volunteer's task. They are even trained to improve their listening skills. Rose Brecka, an 80-year-old parent aide, told me being a good listener made all the difference with the mother she started with two years ago.

"When she talked to me in confidence, I listened in confidence," the retired teacher said. "I gave her the respect she deserved. . . . I respected her and she started respecting herself."

Though Brecka was 45 years older and had a very different background than the single mother of two with whom she was matched, they became and still are very close friends.

"We spent time together. We laughed together. We both loved those children," Brecka said. "I could see her doing wonderful things with them and, I would compliment her on it." With Brecka's support helping along the way, the mother overcame alcohol addiction and Brecka has moved on to her next match.

This time she's paired with a 72-year-old woman who is raising her three great-grandchildren, all of whom are under the age of 6. She's only met with them a couple times, including when she took little flags by for each child for Memorial Day. Brecka is not sure what exactly this brave great-grandmother needs but knows they will figure it out together.

"She really loves those children. She has a play room on the side of her house for them," Brecka said. "What I would like to do is go to a park and go for a walk. She can talk about how it's going. If she doesn't want to say anything that's fine. We can just walk in the comfort of each other."

There are currently about 20 parent to parent aide matches in progress. Brink, from the Exchange Center, said anyone interested in volunteering or getting a parent aide is encouraged to call. Though it takes a special person to be a parent aide, it doesn't take a social worker, counselor or parenting expert.

"We have folks from their 20s, 80s. We have people who don't have children yet, they may have a niece or a little sister. If there is a question they can't answer (the Exchange Center) can get the information they need," Brink said. "Some of the parent aides may be older. It may have been 34 years since they did potty training."

The aides go through four training sessions and are in close contact with the Exchange Center's two social workers who provide them with any guidance or resources they need.

"I get as much out of this if not more than I put into it," Irwin said. "It's the joy of watching people grow. They are thankful just to have someone take time to listen and to help.

For more information call the Exchange Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse at 522-6465.

-- Contact Rookie Mom with questions, comments or column ideas at 727-822-7225 or

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